Cost of Living uncovers the hidden realities of poverty, disability and loneliness

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London’s Hampstead Theatre presents ‘Cost of Living’ as its hundredth premier. Written by the Polish-American Pulitzer winning playwright Martyna Majok and directed by Edward Hall, this one act play is inspired by the world Majok grew up in and the life she has lived. Review by Sonali Shah

With a perfectly suited cast, including the multi-talented Adrian Lister, Cost of Living vividly explores citizenship and human rights in the lives of those positioned on the margins of American society. With a minimalist set, and strong engaging performances, the play uncovers the hidden realities of poverty, depicting issues of unemployment, disability, immigration, class and homelessness. Cost of Living is a study of the shifting sands of power and vulnerability in the storylines of its four central characters.

The interplay of disability, nudity and profanity on stage did indeed cause some audience members to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Such exposure in mainstream theatre, however shocking, will inevitably bring a new understanding of why ‘the shit that happens is not to be understood’ to quote Eddie (Adrian Lister).

A black man leans over the edge of a bath, washing a white woman

Adrian Lester (Eddie) and Katy Sullivan (Ani) in Cost of Living at Hampstead Theatre. Photo © Manuel Harlan

Eddie, an unemployed truck driver and recovering alcoholic, opens the play with a long monologue, excellently delivered to the fourth wall. He reflects, soberly and tenderly, on his love for his dead wife Ani (cleverly played by Katy Sullivan, also a Paralympian) and on the moments when he was her husband, her caregiver and both.

With swift scene changes, the play moves back in time, depicting fractious moments in their relationship. She shouts, screams and throws verbal abuse at Eddie who takes it in his stride. Both expose their vulnerabilities, their need for care – emotional and physical. We see him bathing her naked, paralysed body on stage, to her favourite classic tune. The scene has a romantic feel and the fractiousness is transformed.

At the same time, in a more affluent part of town, Cost of Living presents the parallel storyline of John (Jack Hunter), a wealthy Princeton PhD student with Cerebral Palsy, and Jess (Emily Barber) a young, intelligent, attractive woman. John employs Jess to be his Personal Assistant despite her referring to him as ‘differently-abled’, which puts his teeth on edge.

A white woman stands leaning over a a seated, naked white man who she is washing

Emily Barber (Jess) and Jack Hunter (John) in Cost of Living at Hampstead Theatre. Photo © Manuel Harlan

She is paid to assist John with personal tasks such as showering, shaving, dressing and undressing. Their intimate relationship is strictly professional, deftly conveying periods of awkwardness when he is being showered by her on stage. This is far from a romantic occasion, however Jess needs this job and Jack clearly does not enjoy being vulnerable, but his humour returns when he is dressed, in his power wheelchair and back in control.

The intricacies and complexities of the carer and Personal Assistant role is new to popular culture in general, and mainstream theatre in particular, so it is refreshingly forward-looking to have this level of exposure at one of London’s main stages.

Furthermore, having disabled actors playing disabled characters avoids the bad press that comes with cripping-up, and naturally is more authentic. With clever plot twists, strong characters and role reversals Cost of Living shows the impact of loneliness and vulnerability whoever you are. However, while the casting of disabled actors is a relief, the lack of audio description and BSL does close the door to some audiences.

Cost of Living plays at Hampstead Theatre, London from 25 January to 9 March 2019